24 January 2016

Over the Wachthubel on snowshoes

Time: 4 hours
Grading: WT1
Height gain: 555 metres
Height loss: 425 metres

Schangnau – Wachthubel – Balmegg - Marbach

Of course I could have just stayed in bed…

I have absolutely no desire for snow this winter. Perhaps it's because winter has never really got going, and already the forecasters are talking of springlike temperatures for the coming days. I need to get out though: since the start of the year, the weekend weather has been uniformly grey, and I am fed up with staying at home.

So I force myself to get up at 7:30 on Sunday morning, and just before nine am on my way. To get to the starting point of this walk, I first need to catch a train to Escholzmatt in the Emmental valley, then a bus to Schangnau. The whole thing should take about an hour. I get off to a bad start though: there are two trains per hour to Escholzmatt and, not having looked at the timetable, I manage to get the one that doesn't connect with the bus. I am left with a 50-minute wait on a chilly station platform, and am thoroughly cold by the time the bus arrives. It quickly fills up with a large group of locals, all wearing carnival costumes and carrying musical instruments.

From the bus, I am surprised by how little snow there is. It has been a cold, wet week in town, and I would have expected there to be a lot more snow up here at 800 metres or thereabouts. The rain/snow limit must have been higher than I anticipated though. At Marbach, where the musicians get off the bus, the ski slope running down to the village looks to be as much mud as snow.

I get off the bus in the little village of Schangnau, and am soon able to put on my snowshoes despite what is only a thin covering of hard-packed, old snow. I climb up above the village, with the imposing wall of the Schrattenflue in the background, soon reaching the edge of the forest into which the path dives. Underfoot, the thin layer of snow barely covers the stony path, making for rather uncomfortable going. I climb up, quite steeply in places, beneath a line of low cliffs. Somewhere up above, a small earth or rockfall comes rushing down, unseen but unsettling.

Sieben Hengste and Sichle
Above the cliffs, the path leaves the trees and the going becomes better. The covering of snow is continuous from here onwards, although it is still cloggy and heavy – it must have rained yesterday, then frozen overnight. I reach an isolated barn at the point marked on the map as Chung, 1267 m, and the view begins to open out to the south-west, with the rocky bluffs of the Sieben Hengste and the snowy, U-shaped Sichle pass the most prominent features. The sky is interesting too, with a chaotic pattern of clouds and occasional patches of blue sky. The weather is however not anything like as good as the forecast had led me to expect, and the sun never manages to align itself with the blue patches and break through. 

Above Chüng, the sun almost but not quite manages to break through
I continue uphill across slopes dotted with numerous animal tracks, the Wachthubel now close at hand. A final steep pull and, about an hour and 45 minutes after setting out from Schangnau, I reach the flat 1414-metre summit of this little hill. I have been here before in summer, and remember it being a great viewpoint. I am not disappointed: despite the distinctly average quality of the light, the view is superb in all directions. In the foreground the Schrattenflue, Hohgant and Sieben Hengste dominate things. Further away southwards is the long ridge of the Brienzergrat while away to the west, the Stockhorn and Niesen stick up like familiar old friends.

Just below the summit, looking back down the ridge up which I have come
I have seen nobody else on the way up, and I have the summit bench to myself, at least for a while, until four snowshoers and a dog arrive from a different direction. I have made courgette, tomato, onion and curry soup, and very good it is too. A cheese sandwich and an apple complete my lunch, before I set off again down the northern side of the mountain. The snow is better on this side, both qualitatively and quantitavely, and the steep slopes just below the summit allow some enjoyable if short glissades. 

Easy slopes take me down the north side of the Wachthubel
I have two options for the descent: either a long crossing to Trubschachen, or a shorter and more direct way down to Marbach. Which one I choose will depend on the amount of snow, but also on whether or not there are already snowshoe tracks: I don't want to spend three hours ploughing through virgin snow. I follow a good track downhill, passing two other walkers who are coming in the opposite direction. A long, almost horizontal traverse leads to the farm of Grosshorben, 1218 m, where I have to temporarily abandon my snowshoes for a stretch of road walking. A smallish dog comes out of the farmyard, yapping around my ankles to inform me that I am not welcome here. I would like to walk past quickly, but the road is covered in ice and I can well imagine that if I fell, I would surprise the dog and possibly provoke an attack. So I advance slowly, slithering along until finally the dog decides that I am no longer a threat and disappears back into its yard.

I put my snowshoes back on, but the next stretch is unpleasant. The track that I am following has been churned by the passage of tractors, and the snow has turned an ugly brown, muddy colour. At Brunnebode, 1235 m, I reach the place where I have to decide between the two descent options. I would have preferred the longer Trubschachen route, but no tracks go that way, all I can see is untouched snow. And so I continue northwards, following a faintly marked trail that heads uphill for a while before dropping down steeply to the farmhouse of Oberbalmegg. Here I expect the tracks to head down eastwards towards Marbach, but they continue northwards, keeping to the crest of the ridge. I carry on for a while, but the tracks are not really going in the right direction for me; they seem to be heading towards Schärligbad, where there is no public transport. At the point 1131 m I decide to leave the ridge: there is a house about 60 metres below, and I can see a road just below the house. Following the edge of a line of trees, I head downhill towards the road. It's steep, very steep, and I am glad that there is so little snow, as it is not the kind of slope that you would want to be tackling in deep snow.

Solitary tree at Brunnebode
After this downhill slide of about 100 metres, the remaining hour's walking is unfortunately all on roads. I walk down past the little hamlets of Oberbergli and Unterbergli, finally reaching the valley at Grosshus, from where it is a further two and a half kilometres to the bus stop at Ey. Normally my transport timings are impeccable, but I am having a bad day today: a bus has just gone, and it's an hour until the next one. The bus stop is in the middle of nowhere and there is no shelter or even a bench to sit on, so I walk another kilometre to the centre of Marbach: at least walking will keep me warm. The musicians are on the bus again, and once again the bus does not connect with a train in Escholzmatt, meaning an additional 20 minutes' wait on a platform which does not seem to have got any warmer since this morning. It has not been the most satisfying of days: the snow was in poor condition, the light wasn't good for photography and the sun failed to come out. The one consolation is that after three weekends with no proper walking, I have managed to get a bit of exercise.

But maybe I should have stayed in bed…

Solitary tree at Oberbalmegg

30 December 2015

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 11, from Einsiedeln to Oberägeri

Time: 4.25 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 645 metres
Height loss: 800 metres

Einsiedeln – Altmatt – Raten – Oberägeri

After a mild and rather damp Christmas in Britain I return to Switzerland with a car full of leftovers, presents and English beer. Also in the car is a Belgian friend whom I have enticed to Lucerne for a few days with a promise of deep blue skies, powdery virgin snow and hot soup in cosy mountain refuges. The weather gods have other ideas though, and my plans for snowshoe tours have to be put on hold for want of the key ingredient. Faced with an unexpected extension to the “summer” walking season, I suggest that we return to the Alpine Panorama Trail, abandoned in Einsiedeln towards the end of October.

After a seven-hour car journey the previous day we are in no hurry to get up, and it’s almost midday by the time we reach Einsiedeln. Lucerne lies under a layer of thick fog, but the train emerges above it between Goldau and Sattel, revealing a perfect blue sky untroubled by any clouds at all. We walk up Einsiedeln’s main street to have a look at the imposing monastery building. The little town has a rather faded, half-forgotten look to it; its hotels, restaurants and shops hanging on as best they can in the hope of an unlikely upturn in fortune.

We retrace our steps to the station, then continue out along a lane that runs westwards, quickly passing the town’s last houses and starting to climb steeply. Bushes are already in blossom beside the road, as though it was April… indeed, at my sister’s house over Christmas, daffodils were flowering in the garden. To our right, a large ski-jumping arena looks completely and utterly out of place, surrounded by green fields and blocks of flats. A young woman overtakes us jogging, pony-tail swishing rhythmically from side to side. Soon afterwards she reappears two hairpins higher up the road, way ahead of us already, while we agree that we would probably not be able to jog any faster than we can walk up such a steep hill. Behind us, to the east, the view quickly expands to include a range of snow-capped mountains in the middle distance. My friend asks me to identify one particularly prominent, pyramid-shaped peak, and I fail miserably.

A path bypasses the zigzags of the road, angling steeply up the grassy hillside to reach the restaurant at Chatzenstrick (1053 m), at the top of the first of the two ridges that we will cross today. The view opens up westwards as well now, revealing the valley that we will cross next and the wooded hills on its far side. There are no more mountains in this direction; the ridge ahead is the last elevation before the land descends to the Swiss Plateau. Northwards, towards Lake Zürich, the layer of fog above which we have climbed obscures the lowlands.

We descend a broad, stony track between fields pungent with the smell of newly-sprayed fertilizer, passing two rustic restaurants, both very definitely closed despite signs announcing the contrary. This descent leads us down into a wide valley whose bottom we reach by the tiny railway station at Dritte Altmatt (920 m), one of three hamlets which unusually bear a number in addition to a name (First, Second and Third Altmatt). The level crossing barrier is down and, before we can cross the line, we have to wait as a little red train arrives, sets down two passengers and leaves again.

The floor of the valley, which stretches from Rothenthurm to Biberbrugg, is almost flat and is covered by a vast expanse of peaty moorland (my guidebook, with maybe just a hint of exaggeration, refers to “terrifying peat-bogs”). During normal winters this is a popular area for cross-country skiing, but there is not a patch of snow to be seen anywhere today. We cross the valley bottom on a stony track that runs straight and level across the moor past occasional agricultural buildings. Away to the south, beyond the end of the moor, a succession of ridges rises up in diminishing shades of grey; it’s a beautiful view, unfortunately looking directly into the low winter sun, which makes it impossible to get a satisfying photo. Little streams wend their way along the floor of the valley, meandering and twisting in a way that suggests little human intervention in the determination of their course.

Crossing the Rothenturm peat moors
A little way up the grassy western flank of the valley, we top for a rather late lunch: it is already well past two in the afternoon by now. The short grass is remarkably dry considering that it’s late December, and the afternoon air is surprisingly warm. We drink hot, home-made broccoli soup, followed by mince pies left over from my Welsh Christmas and tangerines that have made the trip from Belgium. To our right, the spire of Rothenthurm church pokes high up above the surrounding houses. Further away, a plume of smoke drifts up from an unidentified point on a hillside, fanning out until it merges into the afternoon haze. As we sit there, people engaged in all kinds of outdoor activities pass by: cyclists, mountain bikers, people walking dogs and pushing pushchairs, a woman on a horse. The Christmas holidays may be a disaster for the nation’s ski fanatics, but plenty of other people are enjoying the unexpected extension of autumn (or maybe already a foretaste of spring, who knows?) The little trains passing along the far side of the valley in the distance look for all the world like a child’s toy train set.

Looking towards Rothenthurm church from our lunch spot
It is so warm that we could have happily stayed at our lunch spot for longer, but we only have a couple of hours’ daylight left, and we will need them if we are to reach our destination at Oberägeri. We set off again at a few minutes before three, climbing up a track which soon enters the forest and becomes quite steep for a while. At the top of the rise, we reach the whitewashed chapel of St. Jost, standing in the middle of a wide clearing at the junction of several paths. There are quite a lot of people here; families mostly – only ten minutes’ walk away from the large car part at the Raten pass, St. Jost is a popular destination for afternoon strolls. The chapel itself is pretty but does not really lend itself to photography, being sandwiched tightly between a restaurant and a drinks caravan. 

St. Jost
We walk slowly downhill to the 1077-metre Raten pass, where a road crosses the ridge between the Rothenthur and Ägeri valleys. Above the pass, everything is in place for the little ski-lift to start operating as soon as it snows. For the moment though, the only patch of snow is well away from the ski area, in a shady spot at the edge of the forest.

There is a bus stop at Raten, but we want to go further before we resort to motorised means of transport. A signpost indicates an hour and a half to Oberägeri: we will probably finish in darkness, but the terrain is easy and we decide to push on. We overtake little groups of people strolling with children, and are overtaken by two very sporty older women who, although they do not have poles, are clearly well versed in the ways of Nordic walking, pumping their arms vigorously as they march off up the hill. The view from this part of the walk is spectacular, with a horizon of snowy peaks to the south and east and the Rigi silhouetted against the setting sun to the west. The buzzing of chainsaws comes from the forest to our left, and the air is heavily perfumed with the smell of freshly-cut wood.

Leaving the crowds of strollers behind, we climb up through pretty woodland onto the ridge of Muetegg (1210 m), the day’s highest point. The country to our left is still bathed by the sun but to the right, northwards, the land falls off steeply into a dark, misty valley from which ominous clanging sounds float up. This leads to a conversation about giants, ogres and trolls (possibly fuelled by the fact that I saw Jack and the Beanstalk at a Christmas pantomime in Wales a few days earlier). 

Evening light
By the time we reach the junction of paths at Mängelihöhe, where the descent to Oberägeri begins, the light is beginning to fade quickly. The sun has dipped behind the trees and suddenly, for the first time today, it feels like winter. I remark that we could have remembered to bring a headlamp along with us, especially given that we already finished our previous walk in darkness, at Halloween on the Rigi. We wrap up warmly, donning scarves, gloves and jackets for the first time today. A narrow path zigzags steeply down through the trees, then emerges into more open country just above the isolated farm of Schwand (936 m). Here, as we come out from under the trees, we are confronted with one of the day’s best views. A lingering ray of sunlight reddens fallen leaves on the path in the foreground and brings out the green of the meadow around the house. To the west, riding above the sea of mist, the outline of the Rigi is sharp and black against a sky which has been enhanced by a few wispy clouds.
A few minutes later and a few metres lower down, we reach the upper limit of the fog and are soon engulfed by its clamminess and by darkness. But the first houses of Oberägeri are only a few minutes away now, with Christmas lights in the windows and garden bushes wrapped against the winter’s cold in jute sacking. I had no great expectations of this walk: on paper, it did not look particularly interesting. It has, however, proved to be an excellent surprise, with an abundance of Alpine panoramas to enjoy. Now I will head for home, as the next two or three stages of national route No. 3 will bring me to Lucerne, before heading off westwards again towards the Emmental and the Bernese foothills.

08 November 2015

A weekend of ridge walks: Sunday on the Arvigrat

Time: 6 hours
Grading: T3
Height gain: 1065 metres
Height loss: 1065 metres

Wirzweli – Arvigrat – Gräfimattstand – Egg - Wirzweli

I return home on Saturday evening after a strenuous day's walking on the Beichle, fully intending to do something a bit more relaxed on Sunday. But I have a kind of silly desire to break the 2,000-metre barrier in November, simply because the current weather conditions have made possible what would normally be out of the question. I consider various options, then remember the Arvigrat. I have had it on my to-do list for a while, but each time I have given it serious consideration, the wrong weather conditions have put paid to the idea.

I get up at a rather lazy eight o'clock, having prepared everything the evening before. At ten past nine I am on the train for the short journey to Dallenwil, from where I must take the cable car up to the little resort of Wirzweli. It's a 20-minute walk from the railway station to the cable car station, but there is a shuttle minibus waiting and I manage to get the last available seat.

I have never seen Wirzweli without snow before: last time I was here was two years ago, more or less at the same time of year. The first (and, as it turned out, the last) big snowfall of the winter had happened, everything was under a white blanket and I had snowshoes with me. What a change today compared to then: it's warm and sunny, everything is green and there is not a patch of snow to be seen. The cable car is full of families going up into the hills to get some fresh, Sunday air with the children. As I walk westwards away from the top cable car station, gradually it becomes quieter as I leave the families behind and as people turn off right or left at the many junctions of paths.

Half an hour's gentle walking on easy paths and lanes brings me to the real start of today's hike at Dürrenboden, 1362 m. The ridge of the Arvigrat looms over the valley, vertical and rather intimidating seen from here: how on earth am I going to get up above all these cliffs and crags? A muddy path leads up just inside the edge of the forest, with occasional views opening up north-eastwards towards Lake Lucerne in the distance. Just below are the farm buildings of Loch which, when I was here two years ago, looked like they were about to be engulfed by waves of snow. The path becomes steeper, zigzagging up through the trees until I reach a clearing on a broad, flat ridge (pt. 1567 m on the map) where the past coming from the Ächerli pass joins the one up which I have come. The route is clearly popular and, even though it's November, I regularly overtake (or am overtaken by) other walkers.

The farmhouse at Loch, November 2015...
... and 2013!
Now I turn due south and begin the long, 450-metre ascent to the highest point of the Arvigrat. In its lower part, the path is steep and greasy, twisting its way up through damp woodland. Underfoot is a mixture of tree roots and rock, making me quite glad that I am doing the walk in this direction rather than south to north. There are many "big steps" to negotiate where long legs are a definite advantage; but long legs or not, it's pretty tiring work. My backpack feels heavy: not only have I brought along two litres of water, but I also have a big, bulky camera with me, having lost the services of my compact yesterday. In some places it feels like scrambling up a steep hillside while in others, there is a clear sense of being on a ridge as the path narrows and the ground drops away steeply on both sides. At no point, however, is there any real sense of exposure… yet.

Above 1700 metres, the climb becomes less steep, the trees start to thin out and there are more stretches where the path is out in the open. I stop to apply some sun protection, but my cream seems to have disappeared. I had it yesterday and did not empty my backpack when I got home: I must have forgotten it on the summit of the Beichle. A gap in the forest gives a plunging view down to the valley below, then across the lake to Vitznau and the Rigi beyond. A bit further along, the long ridge snaking down from the Brisen catches the eye, looking terrifyingly steep from here… to think that I walked down that ridge last summer, it looks impossible from here!

Looking across to the Brisen... did I really walk down that ridge?
I come to a larger clearing where a number of people are sitting on the grass having lunch: midday is approaching, but I want to go further before I stop. Despite the fact that the terrain has been easy enough so far, I am slightly scared by what may lie ahead on this walk, and that is pushing any thoughts of lunch to the very back of my mind. I have been reading descriptions of the route and have seen references to narrow ridges, exposed passages, not to be attempted in wet conditions and so on. And indeed, above this clearing, things start to become more serious. Another steep uphill section follows and here, there is a short section where the path becomes very narrow, squeezing between trees with a big, vertical drop on the right. It's the kind of place where I start to ask myself: if it gets more difficult further on and I want to turn back, will I be able to come back down this bit? I decide that the answer is yes, and keep going. It is exactly at this point that I am overtaken by a young German couple: the man is carrying a baby on his back, which does seem a rather rash thing to be doing here.

Just before the summit, the ridge widens out
Above this short, exposed step, the ridge flattens and broadens out into a labyrinth of humps, bumps, hollows and bowls. In this confused terrain, it becomes quite difficult to work out where the main line of the ridge lies, and which of the humps are dead ends. Each hump has its little group of people having lunch, taking photos or just admiring the view; there are even people grilling sausages over an improvised fire. Up ahead, the path runs towards another hump, steeper and higher than the others: this turns out to be the highest point of the ridge, at an altitude of 2014 metres.

As I climb up towards the summit, the ridge gradually narrows until it is no more than the slenderest of crests, maybe a metre wide at its narrowest point. On both sides, grassy slopes plunge down at an angle that would definitely not allow you at arrest a fall… best not to trip while walking along here. Despite the airy location, there must be twenty people sitting at the highest point, occupying every inch of flat space as I pick my way slowly past them, stepping carefully over backpacks and around outstretched legs.

Looking ahead from the summit of the Arvigrat... now that looks narroow!
I decide to go a bit further before I stop to eat: a little way ahead and below, I can see a flat, grassy col, which will be a perfect spot. However, I can also see that the ridge between here and the col is narrower than ever: it will be a good test of my head for heights. In the middle distance, two people sitting atop the ridge put the whole thing into perspective: the area occupied by their bottoms basically corresponds to the width of the ridge, it's very narrow indeed.

Narrower and narrower
I pass the vertigo test, but not without a fair bit of hesitation. In the two worst places, the drop is only on one side, as the path runs just below the true crest. But in these two places, over a distance of maybe ten steps, the path is too narrow to place both feet side by side, and it is in the shade, making the earth underfoot slightly slippery. I advance very, very slowly, concentrating on making every step a solid one, until the difficult passage is behind me and the ridge becomes wider once again. There is one more heart-in-mouth moment as I arrive above what seems to be a vertical drop of 20 metres or so… then I see that the path twists away to the right, angling down an easier slope to come out below the drop onto the col that I had seen from the summit. There is a junction of paths here; going off to the right is the route down to Kerns, which I was originally planning to take. It doesn't look easy though; the mountainside above which I have just traversed is extremely steep, and this path has to cross it. I wonder if I will end up having to go back the same way, and am most relieved when I see that from the col, an obviously easy path leads off eastwards, down into the valley that runs back to Wirzweli. With my eyes, I follow this path all the way down until it joins a farm road: I have an escape route if needed.

Looking back from my lunch spot: the difficulties are behind me.
The knowledge that I have an easy way down makes the rest of the day much easier: no need to worry any more about vertical drops, I can sit down, enjoy my lunch and maybe even continue to the next summit, the 2050-metre Gräfimattstand. I find a nice spot a little way above the col and settle down on the grass to have lunch: no soup today, but a pasta, tomato, yellow pepper and parsley salad makes a nice accompaniment to some sausage and an orange. I can feel the back of my neck starting to burn and, with no sun cream to put on it, have to wrap my fleece around my shoulders despite the very warm weather. From where I am sitting, the view eastwards takes in all the mountains of the Engelberg valley, the stars of the show being the crazy castles of the Gross and Chli Spannort, and the snow-capped wedge of the Titlis.

Now I have to choose between a siesta and the Gräfimattstand, it's already too late in the afternoon for there to be time for both. I check the time of the last cable car down from Wirzweli: it's OK, there is no need for me to rush, I just need to make sure that I get down before night falls at half past five. I decide to skip the after-lunch snooze and go for the Gräfimattstand; it will take me about an hour to get there and back again from my current position. There is no real reason to go to the Gräfimattstand, other than the fact that it's there and that, at 2050 metres, it will definitely be the highest point that I have ever reached in November!

Beyond my picnic place the ridge once again becomes very narrow, but either the drop is less vertical or I have gained confidence, and it feels much easier than before. The path becomes wider again, works its way round the west side of the big, rounded hump of the Gräfimattnollen… and then, to my surprise, comes out onto a vast, grassy plateau, totally unexpected and unlike anything else on this ridge. The Gräfimattstand is rather underwhelming; were it not for the fact that it is the highest point on the ridge; it would be hard to describe it as a hill at all. There is no clearly defined summit, no cross or other market to indicate the top, so I just make my way to what appears to be the highest point, over hummocks of earth and tufty grass that must get very wet and boggy in rainy conditions. Beyond here, the ridge continues southwards for several more kilometres, but there is no official path and the going becomes a lot more difficult than the part that I have crossed.

The ridge continues southwards beyond the Gräfimattstand
I retrace my steps to my lunchtime spot, then take the easy path that drops off to the east. The mountain has changed while I was at the Gräfimattstand: an hour ago, there were people everywhere. Now, suddenly and rather eerily, I am completely alone. It's half past three in the afternoon, the sun has dipped below the higher mountains and people are heading for home. A signpost announces an hour and fifty minutes' walking time back to Wirzweli, I will make it just before it gets dark.

The way back is easy and, once I have walked down the initial steep path into the valley, all on farm tracks and lanes. I follow the valley northwards to Eggalp, where there are no hens despite the name. There is, however, a tiny and very antique-looking cable car that runs back down towards Wirzweli, though I am not sure I would trust myself to it. The road winds pleasantly downhill, as the last rays of the setting sun catch the Stanserhorn to the north and the Titlis to the south-east. I reach Wirzweli at five o'clock, and am home an hour later. If this was the end of the summer hiking season – and in all likelihood it will be - it has been a very nice end indeed.

07 November 2015

A weekend of ridge walks: Saturday on the Beichle

Time: 5 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 1250 metres
Height loss: 1190 metres

Schüpfheim – Beichle – Escholzmatt
Weekends like this are made to be enjoyed to the full. The Indian summer is not showing any sign of coming to an end, but come to an end it surely will. It would be criminal not to make the most of what, if the forecast is to be believed, will be two perfect days for hiking. Of course I could simply resume my Alpine Panorama Trail walk, but it seems a shame to waste these two days on low-altitude walks. I do not as yet have any clear plan for Sunday, but for Saturday I have set my sights on a long ridge walk in the Emmental, including a crossing of the 1769-metre Beichle.

A forty-minute train ride takes me to Schüpfheim, and then a five-minute short hop on the post bus brings me to the start of the walk at Chlusboden in the valley of the Waldemme river. Three other people get off the bus, and will follow me for the first couple of hours of my walk.

A pastoral start in the Emmental valley
There is no gentle introduction to this walk; it's steeply uphill from the outset. I gain height rapidly above a very green, pastoral valley where wooden farmhouses are scattered around tree-crested hillsides. At a gate between fields, a sign tells me to beware of the bull, but as far as I can see, the cattle have already been taken down to the valley for the winter. I continue up alongside a pretty avenue of silver birches, their fallen orange leaves forming a colourful carpet on the ground. Everything is quiet; the only sound is the chattering and laughter of the three walkers who are following a couple of hundred metres behind me. There are no lambs at the farm of Unter Lammberg; nor, thankfully, is there any sign of a bull. The same goes for Ober Lammberg, two hundred metres higher up the hillside.

Climbing steeply above Ober Lammberg
I have been following a farm track so far, but above Ober Lammberg there is no path at all. The way is obvious enough though: straight up the centre of the broad, grassy ridge towards the forest above. A red metal gate takes me into the forest, where the faintest of paths zigzags up between the trees. The slope is unremittingly steep, with really nowhere at all to take a breather, but this has its advantages: on reaching an isolated barn, I realise that I have climbed 700 metres in an hour and a half, despite having deliberately paced myself so as not to tire too quickly.

The map shows this spot to be at an altitude of 1433 metres, but a signpost next to the barn contradicts the map, naming the place as Gsteig, 1450 metres. In fact, the waymarking is somewhat wayward all the way along the route: at the start of the walk, a signpost indicated 2 hours to Gsteig and 3 hours to the summit of the Beichle. While the overall time is correct, you definitely do not need two hours to climb up to Gsteig, and you definitely need more than an hour from Gsteig to the summit!

As the ridge becomes more open and less wooded, the views become grandiose. The sky is an absolutely perfect blue and, unlike last weekend, there is no low-lying mist in the valleys. The air is as clear as I have ever seen it and visibility is perfect, with the outline of even the most distant features perfectly sharp. Away to the north, way beyond the Jura and into Germany, I can see what can only be the Black Forest. In the opposite direction, the mountains of the Bernese Oberland come gradually closer as I progress along the ridge.

I stop to take a photo of the Bernese giants to the south, zooming in on a vast expanse of glacier. When I go to turn my camera off after taking the picture, the lens stays in zoom position, the camera beeps three times and displays a message: "Lens error, restart camera". I try to restart the camera, but it is impossible to turn it off and the same message is displayed again. I try removing the battery: still no luck, the lens stays blocked and the camera beeps at me every time I try to do something. It looks like the lens motor has decided it has had enough, after six years of fairly intensive use. Funnily enough, my previous compact camera came to exactly the same end: a recurring weakness in Canon PowerShots, or just coincidence? Anyway, for the remainder of the walk, I will have to make do with the limited possibilities offered by my iPhone.

The ridge has levelled out now and while the general trend is still uphill, the going is much easier. Rocky outcrops punctuate the grassy ridge here and there, the path passing them on the northern side. Now the summit of the Beichle appears up ahead, a series of angled terraces that drop away abruptly in cliffs to the north. The path turns one last little hump (pt. 1740 on the map) on the southern side, then makes for the base of the cliffs. Now follows the day's only little difficulty, although it remains manageable. The path becomes narrow and rather muddy, skirting below the cliffs to the left and above a steep drop to the right. Trees hide the extent of the drop, but I become aware of its verticality when I put my right-hand hiking pole down beside the path and feel it going into emptiness. This slightly exposed stretch of path ends at the base of a rocky chimney, which is climbed easily with the aid of a fixed cable, leading to the large, sloping summit plateau.

The Beichle comes into view
There are plenty of people at the top; eating, enjoying the view, sleeping in the sun. Over the next hour, I will indulge in all three of these activities. I have made celeriac and carrot soup, an old favourite of mine, but it has a slightly bitter taste and does not quite match last weekend's thick lentil soup. From the grassy slope where I sit to eat my sandwiches, the panorama to the south is absolutely superb, taking in what seems to be the whole of the Swiss Alps, certainly the whole of the Bernese Alps. There are the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, the jagged Schreckhorn and the massive Wetterhorn. Further east, a vast glacial area must be somewhere around the Trift and Sustenhorn area. At the western end of the range, the Stockhorn points up like an erect nipple above a bluish haze that is covering the city of Bern and western Switzerland beyond. It's hard to do it photographic justice with just a mobile phone, especially given that the best of the views are directly into the sun. I stay here for an hour, enjoying a long, hot siesta during which I think I actually doze off for a few minutes.

Looking towards the Stockhorn and the Gantrisch range from the summit of the Beichle
Setting off again, I follow the broad, easy south-west ridge down to the saddle of Beichlengfäl, where I unexpectedly come across a little road and a car park. A group of paragliders have just got out of a minibus and are toiling uphill towards the summit, carrying their sails in huge, heavy-looking backpacks. The paragliders are all men; they are followed by a solitary woman carrying a much smaller pack: she is presumably the one who has been lumbered with the task of carrying all their discarded gear back down to the bus.

From Beichlengfäl, it's two hours of steep, wooded descent to the end of the walk at Escholzmatt. I often find these forest paths monotonous, but this one is really nice. It twists and turns prettily downhill, always steep but never uncomfortably so, and occasional gaps in the trees open up beautiful views westwards, where the great U-shaped Sichle pass is bounded by the Sieben Hengste and the Sigriswiler Rothorn. Below the bottom end of the forest, I follow little lanes past farms where dogs are barking and people chatting, enjoying the warm weather. I exchange greetings with a little group of locals who are talking in the sun: although we are geographically in the canton of Lucerne, their "Grüessech !" is 100 per cent Bernese. The lane takes me past a hamlet called Ostrichli, which sounds like it should mean a cute little ostrich but almost certainly doesn't. Leaves rustle and swirl around me in a gust of wind: the trees are shedding the last of their summer clothes as the shadows lengthen. 

I know that there are two trains per hour from Escholzmatt to Lucerne, but have no idea at exactly what time they leave. I arrive at the station at 16:19, the train arrives at 16:20. It has been that kind of perfect day.

31 October 2015

A special day above the clouds on the Rigi

Time: 5.5 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 950 metres
Height loss: 1400 metres

Seeboden – Rigi Kaltbad – Dossen – Hinterbergen - Vitznau

Even more than usual, I have been praying to the weather gods for sunshine over the last few days. A rather special friend has travelled a considerable distance to spend the weekend in central Switzerland, and a walk in the mountains is an integral part of the plan. I have chosen the Rigi as a good introduction to the area; I know that the views will be magnificent, that the walking will not be too strenuous, that there is no risk of running into snow and that we will not need to get up at the crack of dawn.

The only real question is how high we will have to go to break out of the fog that has been covering the lowlands for the past week, as is so often the case here in autumn. The weather forecast suggests that the upper limit will be at around 900 metres, and so I decide that we will start our walk at Seeboden, comfortably above the clouds at an altitude of 1020 metres.

Except it isn't. Looking across the lake to the Rigi from the train that takes us to Küssnacht, I can see that the thickest part of the band of cloud is exactly at the altitude at which we will be starting. As we climb slowly up in the little cable car from Küssnacht, first over fields and houses, then above yellow and orange-leaved trees, the visibility gradually worsens until we arrive at Seebodenalp in quite thick fog. I know that we will eventually get above it, but I wonder how long it will take.

It's exactly half past ten as we set off south-eastwards. I know that the view from here across to the Pilatus is beautiful, and I am disappointed that my friend will not be seeing it. The only compensation is a large information panel that explains the area's glacial past, complete with pictures which rather misleadingly give the impression that the invisible valley down below is covered with a huge glacier and inhabited by mammoths. The voices of other, unseen walkers drift across from a path that must be running parallel to ours. Sounds are distorted and transformed by the fog: some way off in the distance, a dog is making an extremely good impression of a seal's barking; while a woman's laugh sounds for all the world like the bleating of a sheep.

With no sign of the fog thinning, we come to the little mountain restaurant at Altruedisegg. Folksy music is playing from a loudspeaker, but the café is grey and deserted, and will no doubt remain so unless the cloud lifts. 

And suddenly, we are above the fog...
The path has been level until now; we have only gained 20 metres in altitude during the first half an hour's walking. Beyond Altruedisegg though, it changes direction and begins to climb quite steeply. At Räbalp, 1124 metres, we start to see hints of blue sky through the cloud… and then, very suddenly, we are out of the fog and the day changes completely. Above us, the sky is a deep and perfect blue. Just below, the blanket of fog stretches away to infinity, smooth and horizontal, almost unreal in its perfection. Away to the south-east, the Pilatus sticks up like some great black iceberg, its outline perfectly sharp in the crystal clear air. On the far horizon, the plume of steam rising from the nuclear power station near Olten looks like some great, snow-covered outlier of the Himalayas. Closer at hand, a grassy ridge rising up out of the fog is transformed into a peninsula surrounded by a shiny sea. Both the suddenness of the transformation and the view itself are quite extraordinary.

Like a headland surrounded by the sea
We continue to climb steadily uphill, mostly in the shade on the northern side of the Geissrügge ridge. Two women are coming up the path behind us, gradually catching us up. They are deep in some kind of conversation about property; one of the women is doing about 90 percent of the talking, while the other interjects an uninterested-sounding "Ja ja" every ten seconds or so. They overtake us and disappear off uphill, still chattering away.

As we approach the promontory of Chänzeli, 1464 m, my friend remarks that there suddenly seem to be a lot of people about. Then we emerge from the forest, and she realizes why. This is an exceptional viewpoint; the whole of the central Swiss Alps and a good part of the Plateau and the Jura can be seen from here. The layer of cloud down below changes things somewhat; where you would normally expect to see the blue waters of Lake Lucerne, today there is a sea of fluffy cotton wool. In the middle, with just its highest points poking up above the fluff, the Bürgenstock looks like some great, hairy centipede. I try to describe the mountains away to the south to my friend; I manage to recognize the Titlis but fail to identify the most imposing peak on show, which we later discover is the Uri Rotstock.

The Bürgenstock doing its creepy-crawly impression for Halloween
From Chänzeli to Rigi Kaltbad is an easy, gently descending walk along a path that is busy with tourists who have come up by train to drink in the view. A lot of building work has been going on at Kaltbad since I was last here: the station used to be little more than a basic shelter, now it is a huge cube of a building that looks rather out of proportion in its surroundings. We continue on a level path, following the route of the railway that once linked Kaltbad to the hotel at Rigi Scheidegg but which, a panel informs us, closed after only a few years, having never attracted enough custom to be profitable.

It feels like lunchtime, but I want to get away from the crowds and have planned to continue to the summit of the 1685-metre Dossen. It's a climb of some forty minutes up a steep, grassy ridge where, for the first time, the view also opens out to the east. As soon as we leave the old railway, there are many fewer people about, and when we finally make it to the highest point of the Dossen at about a quarter to two, we have the place to ourselves. 

Approaching the Dossen
The day has been perfectly calm until now, but a chilly breeze is blowing across the narrow grassy ridge of the summit, so we retreat a little way back down the northern side of the hill to find a more sheltered spot. I have made lentil soup and have added some tomato and parsley enhancements to a supermarket taboulé; two different alp cheeses and sourdough bread from the local bakery complete a satisfying lunchtime menu. The wind is getting colder and stronger though, and we do not linger for long once we have finished eating. We climb back up to the Dossen and cross its summit again (I can't remember ever having done the same summit twice in the space of an hour before), then head down the south ridge into what has now become a strong and chilly wind, which only eases off a hundred metres lower down at Hinder Dossen. It looks like there is also more wind in the valleys now; the perfect smoothness of the fog blanket has been ruffled and, with little bits of mountain sticking up out of it, it now looks more like a rough sea smashing against a rocky coastline. In places, the fog has been torn all the way through to the surface of the lake, which looks like a shiny sheet of ice in the afternoon sunlight.

It's a wild day off the west coast of the Rigi...
Now for the 1400 metres of downhill walking that will bring us to the lakeside and the bus stop at Vitznau. A pretty path angles down the steep hillside towards the farm buildings at Gletti, 1373 m. In the background, the prominent feature is now the rocky, wooded Vitznauerstock. I balance my camera precariously on a fence post for a self-portrait of the two of us. A junction of paths offers two ways down to Hinterbergen, one of which is explicitly marked "Steep path". We opt for the slightly longer, gentler alternative, which is pretty steep itself in places, making me wonder just what the steeper option is like. 

Lengthening shadows above Hinterbergen
My sister sends me a selfie of her and our father from the football ground where they are watching Watford inflict misery on West Ham in the sun (I am also informed of the score); we go along with the selfie ritual and send one back. On the other side of the little valley, a family is raking up hay by hand, a final gathering of food for the animals this coming winter. It may be Saturday, but there is plenty of work going on on these hillsides; everywhere are little tractors and trailers, people repairing things and getting everything ready to face the snow and rain of the coming months. At the edge of one field, a conical haystack with a pole sticking out of its top looks exactly like a giant pear that has been plonked down beside the path.

Anyone fancy a poached pear?
We reach the little hillside hamlet of Hinterbergen at about four o'clock. The shadows are lengthening and the light will soon start to fade. Quite a few people are queuing for the little cable car that goes down to Vitznau; given that it only holds four or five people, it looks like they may be in for quite a long wait. We decide to continue all the way down on foot. Not far below Hinterbergen, we once again reach the upper limit of the fog, although it is not so thick now as it was this morning. The air cools immediately as the first wisps of cloud blow around us, then we are right back in it and everything suddenly becomes darker, though the sun is still visible up above every now and then.

There are two ways down to Vitznau from here; having already walked down the path via Fälmis and St. Antoni, I decide that we should go down the other way, via Gäbetswil. It proves to be an unexpectedly adventurous half hour, as the path becomes narrow and twists down between rocky outcrops above a deep ravine. The path is covered in fallen leaves which are both very slippery and make it impossible to see what is underneath. There are wooden handrails and metal cables to hold on to, but in places these are in poor condition and do not offer a great sense of security. A series of little ladders would be easy going uphill, but need to be taken carefully when going downwards in these slithery autumn conditions. Eventually the obstacles are behind us though, and the path levels out to cross a grassy slope where the sound of unseen cowbells drifts through the mist.

By the time we make it down to Vitznau, it is half past five and almost dark. We have been going for seven hours including stops, probably about five and a half hours actual walking time. We have twenty minutes to wait for the bus back to Küssnacht, so we walk slowly down to the lakeside. A group of mothers and children dressed as witches cross the road in front of us, reminding us that tonight is Halloween and tomorrow will be November. Across the water, whose surface is lit pink and mauve by the last rays of light, the Bürgenstock has become fully visible; its towering, dark cliffs looking suitably haunted for the occasion. Despite a damp, foggy start, the day has totally lived up to expectations.

24 October 2015

On and around the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 10, from Innerthal to Euthal

Time: 4.5 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 740 metres
Height loss: 760 metres

Innerthal – Rosenhöchi - Euthal

The weather gods have been very kind to me. Just after I finished the previous stage of my Lake Constance to Lake Geneva walk, we had a proper foretaste of winter, with several days where the temperature stayed in single figures and where the snow line came down to somewhere around a thousand metres. But the last few days have once again been warm and sunny, in the mountains at least, and I reckon that the next stage should be doable, with a maximum altitude of 1507 metres. Once this stage is out of the way, the next few legs of the Alpine Panorama Trail will be low-level walks which I will be able to do in pretty much any weather.

It's Saturday morning, and I am not very motivated. I force myself to get out of bed although I really don't feel like it at all. Trains and buses take me back to the banks of the Wägitalersee, where a chilly breeze is blowing, making me wish I had brought a pair of gloves with me… it will after all be November in a week's time. Three other walkers get off the bus with me, but they soon disappear and I will see very few people for the rest of the day.

I walk round the east bank of the lake, while scenes of rural life unfold around me. A woman walking a large dog says hello.  A tractor chugs past on the tiny lane, its trailer loaded with logs cut into nice fire-sized chunks, ready to heat someone's living room this winter. A black cat bounces down a grassy hillside, pursuing some scampering rodent or flying insect. Another tractor, this one towing a boat that has probably just been taken out of the water and is on its way to its winter quarters. The sound of Innerthal's church clock striking ten floats across the still blue water of the lake.

Climbing out of the Wägital
After half an hour's flat walking on the lakeside lane, I start to climb up a stony farm track that is covered with a thick carpet of fallen leaves. The first part of the climb is the steepest, and I make really hard going of it; I feel physically out of condition, and any initial thoughts that it might be a chilly day disappear as the combination of steep path and autumn sun soon have me sweating uncomfortably. After 250 metres of toiling uphill, the gradient eases below the little hump of the Stockbügel, 1153 m.

Although the path continues to rise, the rate of ascent now becomes much more gentle: it will take a kilometre to climb the next hundred metres. The ground is boggy, and over quite a long distance, the path has been constructed out of what look like old railway sleepers. These are wet and slippery however, and in places there is even a film of frost on them; the night must have been cold. I realise that I am actually not enjoying myself at all, something very rare for me in the mountains. It would be nice to have company on this walk: next weekend I know that I will have company of the nicest possible kind, but will the weather cooperate for another seven days?

I manage to shake off my bad mood through sketching. I have been walking without really taking much notice of the scenery, but on looking back I suddenly realise that the most superb view has opened up behind me. Behind a foreground of pastures and conifers, all the mountains on the far side of the Wägitalersee are now visible, the pointed shapes of the Bockmattli, Schiberg and Brünnelistock accentuated by residual snow from last weekend. Further to the right, the north-facing Mutteristock has a much thicker and more generalised covering of snow. A convenient boulder is a perfect place to sit and sketch part of this scene for twenty minutes, while the sun, which has now become hot, roasts the right-hand side of my neck. By the time I finish my sketch, my mood has brightened up no end. 

I continue gently uphill to the farmhouse at Tannstofel, 1329, all closed up for the winter. Here, the waymarking on the ground differs from what is marked on the 1:50,000 map. The map suggests that I should continue straight ahead, past the farmhouse and up the bottom of the valley. But in front of the house, a signpost sends me off to the left, where a short but steep climb takes me up onto a grassy ridge. There is no path as such here, but occasional red and white marks on trees and rocks show the way, up across cow-churned tufty grass to the crest of the ridge. New views open up here: way away to the west, the Mythens poke up above a sea of trees, while much closer at hand, the 2100-metre Fluebrig rises up in steeply-angled slabs of snow and rock. 

The Fluebrig seen from Tannstoffel
The Grosser and Kleiner Mythen poke up above a sea of forest
I continue westwards along the grassy ridge, where a young couple are relaxing in the long grass, having probably just finished their picnic lunch. They are the first walkers I have seen since getting off the bus, and it reminds me that it's half past twelve and that I should also be turning my thoughts to food.

A little further on, just before the path enters an area of forest and begins to climb more steeply, I find the ideal spot. Just below the ridge on its sunny southern side, a grassy slope runs down towards a valley where the trickling of water from a stream provides a gentle musical background. The grass of the slope is warm and dry, and the view across to the snowy Mutteristock is superb. I drink a cup of pumpkin soup, draw the landscape, eat my sandwiches, have some more soup, eat an apple and finish the whole thing off with twenty warm minutes lying on my back and soaking up the sun. In doing so, I pick up my first sunburn of the summer… on 24th October!

The Mutteristock seen from my lunch spot
After lunch, I continue to follow the ridge as it becomes narrower and steeper, climbing up towards what looks like an immense fortress of rock, half seen through the trees. This is the 1504-metre Chli Mutzenstein, and when it finally becomes properly visible it is revealed to be much smaller than I had initially thought, although still impressively vertical. The path skirts this tower on its northern side, dropping steeply down right below the base of the cliffs until it reaches easier ground below.

Now for the climb to the Rosenhöchi, the day's highest point at 1507 metres. To describe it as a summit would definitely be an exaggeration, as the Rosenhöchi is really no more than one of several humps on what has once again become a broad ridge. There are some very muddy sections along this part of the ridge; once again, wooden planks and logs have been used to lay a path across the boggiest bits, but they are so slippery as to be more of a hazard than a help. As I climb slowly uphill, I am startled by a sudden racket up ahead; it sounds like there is an elephant charging through the trees. In fact, the noise is made by a huge bird – I have no idea what it may have been, a raven maybe – which has taken fright and is trying to escape from the undergrowth where it was sheltering. Two more birds of the same kind also burst out of the trees ahead of me and disappear in a flurry of wings and a rustling of leaves.

Looking back eastwards from the Rosenhöchi
I reach the highest point of the Rosenhöchi, where there is a junction of paths. In preparation for the winter, pink snowshoe way mark posts have already been erected here, and the remainder of the walk will follow a line of tall, pink-painted poles, high enough to poke out above a couple of metres of snow. Another really muddy patch almost has me on my bottom two or three times, but I manage to stay upright until the going becomes drier. Downhill I go to Vorder Wisstannenweid, where the local ski club has a hut at which, a notice informs me, food and drink can be had all winter on Saturdays and Sundays. I make a mental note to research this as a possible snowshoeing tour for the coming winter season.

The remainder of the walk is all downhill on farm tracks and lanes, with nothing of any great note to describe except for one point where, on emerging from a wooded area, the Sihlsee suddenly appears in the valley ahead. One tree has obligingly decided to remain bright yellow, just to give a nice foreground to the scene. The Sihlsee is less dramatic than the Wägitalersee though, surrounded by gentle hills rather than sharp mountain peaks. It's a reminder that the Alpine Panorama Trail will be keeping to lower ground over the coming stages.

In theory, I should be walking to Einsiedeln today, but this would mean either a two-hour detour and an extra 400 metres of climbing, or four kilometres of road walking. And so I cheat, and catch a bus from Euthal to Einsiedeln… but don't tell anyone! It turns out to be a wise decision: the road is busy, there is no pavement, and a long stretch of it is being resurfaced: it would definitely not have made for pleasant walking…

Next stage
Previous stage

04 October 2015

On and around the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 9, from Näfels to Innerthal

Time: 6 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 1260 metres
Height loss: 775 metres

Näfels – Scheidegg - Innerthal

Anyone who has been following the progress of my wanderings around the Alpine Panorama Trail (and I know for sure that at least one person has been reading these posts) will remember that the last couple of stages have not been totally satisfying. After more than a month away from the trail, I am badly in need of a really good day out in the hills… and thankfully, today I got it: the walk from Näfels in the Glarnerland to Innerthal on the banks of the Wägitalersee is a superb one.

With a sunny Saturday and a rainy Sunday morning forecast, I turn my usual weekend pattern on its head and decide on Saturday for my mountain walk. It's a beautiful autumn morning; people are on their way to the shops and the market as I walk to the station, and the streets which are normally deserted when I set out for a hike are busy. From the train, I look out over a pastel landscape where trees throw long shadows across green fields. There is just a hint of mist, giving the light a very gentle quality. I am in an unusually serene frame of mind, and this soft October light fits perfectly well with it. As the train runs southwards along the Zürichsee, rays of sunshine bounce off the surface of the lake, its water ruffled by the Föhn wind.

I get off the train at Näfels, where I finished my previous stage on a baking hot day at the end of August. From the station, it takes about a quarter of an hour to cross the little town to its far side, where the climb up out of the Linth valley begins. An easy, stony path zigzags up through woods, not so steep as to be tiring, but steep enough to quickly gain altitude. Leaves flutter down from the trees above my head, reminding me that this is autumn and that the mountains will soon be locking down for winter. I am glad of this sunny day, as I very much want to get this stage and the next one out of the way before more wintry weather arrives: afterwards, there will be a series of lower level stages that I will be able to do even if there is snow.

At a junction marked on the map as Brändliboden, I leave the main path that heads up towards the Obersee and strike off to the right, up a much narrower path. Although easy enough to follow, this path is somewhat overgrown and looks like it probably does not see a huge number of walkers. Just below 800 metres, there is a lake marked on the map, the Haslensee. I divert from the path to have a look at it, nestling in a little hollow… but the lake is completely dried up. I wonder if it fills up with water in spring, or if it has simply given up being a lake for good. At the chalet of Brändlen, 886 m, a first break in the forest gives me a long view up towards the Schwändlital valley, which I will be following eastwards today. Big clouds are building up over the mountains to the west, and I hope that the Föhn will hold the rain at bay for long enough. 

The Haslensee is no longer operating as a lake...
The forest is very peaceful; I only really notice this when I slip on a stone, and the noise frightens a large bird which must have been in a tree just above my head. It flaps off noisily in a panic, squawking at me from a safe distance up above. A little further on, in a field, three calves are lying on the path. Two of them take no notice as I walk past, but the third one panics and sets off ahead of me until it finds its progress blocked by a fence, at which point the poor thing almost falls off the path and down the slope to the left in its eagerness to get away. I come to a junction with a little road, which I have to follow for a couple of hundred metres. The road is liberally covered with smelly, fresh cowpats, suggesting that the cows have been very recently brought down from their summer pastures to spend winter in the valley below. A young couple on mountain bikes come up the hill towards me; they are the only other people I will see during the first four hours of this walk. They ask me for directions to a place I have never heard of, but at least I am able to lend them my map so that they can work out which way to go.

At the little Alpine farm of Eggberg, 1084 m, I reach the upper limit of the forest. The farmyard is full of hens, which seems quite appropriate given the name of the place, while sheep graze in the surrounding fields. The view southwards is dominated by the huge, craggy mass of the Rautispitz, while away to the east, a wide and rather cloudy panorama opens up, dominated by the receding Mürchtenstock and the Fronalpstock above the Glarus valley.

Eggberg and the Rautispitz
Now begins the best part of the walk. I climb up above Eggberg onto a broad, rounded ridge which runs westwards between two valleys, gently climbing. Underfoot, the grass is stiff and springy, and I almost bounce uphill towards the little summit of the Boggenhöhli, 1259 m. The autumn colours are stunning as I continue to a point marked on the map as Boggenmoor. I wonder if the Boggen part of the name is in any way related to the English word bog: while not really boggy, the ground underfoot is certainly quite damp and spongy in places. The damp hollows are full of grass that has already veered to a yellowy-orange colour, making for a marvellous foreground to the rocky summits in the distance. 

Autumn colors at Boggenmoor
It is half past twelve, time for a spot of lunch. Sometimes it's not easy to find the ideal picnic spot; today the problem is the opposite: there are perfect spots everywhere, each with a better view than the previous one. I settle on an east-facing slope at about 1300 metres, with a view that would be difficult to beat. In the foreground, grassy pastures run down from left to right, dotted here and there with farmhouses and barns. A like of trees runs down the crest of a ridge; most of them are still-green conifers, but a little group of deciduous trees in the middle has turned bright yellow and offers a lovely contrast. Behind this colourful foreground, the walls of the mountains beyond the Linth valley rise up in multiple shades of grey. I have made leek and potato soup to accompany my sandwiches, but it doesn't quite match up to my fantastic lentil soup of two weekends ago: when warming it up this morning, it seemed a bit underseasoned, so I dumped in a good whack of salt and pepper… too much in fact, as now the soup is a little bit too salty. The sun is warm, the grass is soft, and I lay back for what may well be the last siesta of the summer: the whole thing is just as it should be. 

A perfect spot for lunch
At half past one I set off again. I would happily have stayed longer here, but I still have three and a half hours' walking to do. The path continues along the crest of the grassy ridge that I have been following since Eggberg. Ahead though, the way is blocked by the vertical cliffs of the Bärensolspitz; the grassy ridge comes to an end and the path starts to descend into the Schwändlital on its northern side. Up ahead, behind a foreground of long shadows and blazing autumn foliage, I can now see the Scheidegg, the pass which will be the highest point of today's walk. A short stretch in a very dark, dense forest beneath looming cliffs offers a sharp contrast after all the wide views of the last two hours. A large, black cave is visible up above to the left, and I hear the sound of some large animal or other crashing about up there: a chamois maybe. I move on quickly, just in case it's a bear, or a troll, or something like that.

The grassy ridge ends at the base of the Bärensolspitz's cliffs, and the path drops down to the right
Looking ahead towards the Scheidegg pass

I emerge again from the forest at Büelen, 1263 m, in the bottom of the Schwändlital. The path runs alongside a little trickle of a stream, then joins a farm track whose surface is hard-baked earth. There is a pungent smell of cow here, but no animals are to be seen. This upper end of the Schwändlital is a lonely place: the cows have gone for the winter, the electric fences have been taken down and the valley has gone into hibernation until next spring. The path skirts round the edge of a marshy area marked on the map as Gross Moos: anywhere in Switzerland, the word Moos in a place name is a good indication that walking boots will probably end up getting muddy, but on this occasion, a good farm track keeps to drier ground and avoids the marshes. I pass a solitary woman walking in the other direction, the first person I have seen since Näfels.

The Scheidegg from Gross Moos
At Hinter Schwändli, the last farm in the valley, a man is loading up a car; it looks like he too is closing his place down in preparation for the winter. Here begins the final 130 metres of climbing up to the Scheidegg. Almost immediately, the path becomes indistinct and the waymarking almost non-existent. At the same time, the ground starts to get very boggy indeed: the Swiss German word Scheidegg means a watershed, and this particular Scheidegg seems to have been shedding more than its fair share of water. A footbridge crosses the stream that flows down from the pass, but it has seen better days: one of the planks from which the bridge is made has a massive hole in the middle, and I prefer to scramble down into the stream and out the other side, rather than trusting my weight on the rotten wood. The final climb to the pass is neither very long nor very steep, but the ground (or lack of) underfoot makes it quite a struggle. I wade up through browny-yellow grass that is at best knee-high, waist-high in places. Below the grass, and largely invisible, is a mixture of mud, water and moss: in places, it bears my weight without any problem; in others, I find myself sinking in and have to haul myself free. And this is at the end of a long, hot, dry summer… I shudder to think what the Scheidegg would be like after a couple of weeks of heavy rain! Maybe this explains why the route over the pass (1431 metres at its highest point) is so little walked despite the magnificent scenery, and why it does not seem to feature on any Swiss hiking websites.

Looking back from the Scheidegg. It looks harmless enough, but all the yellowish stuff is knee-high grass on a bed of mud and water
The Schwyz side of the pass is equally muddy at first, but soon the path leaves the valley to fall away eastwards, and runs horizontally across its southern flank, beneath the white cliffs of the Tierberg and the Bockmattli. Up ahead, the unmistakable shape of the Grosser Mythen appears in the far distance; it's a reminder than I am leaving the unknown, exotic lands of eastern Switzerland behind and am heading for home territory. The path drops down to an isolated house at Trepsenalp, 1352 m, then skirts horizontally round the side of a deep valley before climbing gently up to the saddle of Schwarzenegg, at an altitude of 1379 metres. Here, for the first time today, I see significant numbers of other walkers. This is the gateway to the Bockmattli and the other peaks of the eastern side of the Wägital, and must be a popular spot for a rest on the way up or down.

Schwarzenegg and the Bockmattli

From here, it's downhill all the way. Very soon after leaving Schwarzenegg, the dark blue Wägitalersee appears down below, filling the bottom of its valley. Man-made it may well be, but nothing can detract from the beauty of the lake, surrounded by dark, high mountains, below which green, sunlit meadows run down to the water's edge. A steep and rather slippery path cuts down the hillside through sun-drenched woodland. With the sun in my eyes and the constant changing of light and dark patches, it's an absolute miracle that I make it down without falling over, but eventually, at about 1100 metres, I come out of the woods and the path becomes a little road. The remainder of the walk is a gentle descent along this lane, with the whole of the Wägitalersee stretching out ahead of me. The fields to either side of the road are full of a noisy concert of cowbells, just to add another layer of perfection to an already perfect scene. The only slight shame is that with the sun more or less directly opposite, it is not easy to get a decent photo of the lake. 

The Wägitalersee

I reach the tiny village of Innerthal, at the northern end of the lake. It is 16:55 and the next bus leaves at 16:59, a fitting final touch for what has probably been the best day's walking that I have done in Switzerland this year. If the weather holds, the next stage will take me from Innerthal over into the Sihltal and to Einsiedeln, where I will once again pick up the official route of the Alpine Panorama Trail.